In all regions, despite their differences, most colonists established farms from the beginning of settlement. Colonial settlers faced several obstacles as they acquired land for farms. Once land was obtained, either through a fee simple or quitrent process, farmers cleared it and determined how much would be in crops. Many farmers found the Indian method of slash-and-burn to be the easiest method to clear the land. Land was cleared of plants and small foliage and the undergrowth was then burned. This method made the land available for planting corn and other non-row crops in the Native American style. Farmers also removed trees by girdling their trunks. Using this method meant it took time for a tree to die, but over time, settlers would be able to clear their land for crops.
In the Northeast, colonists encountered rocky, acidic, clay soil that proved difficult to clear easily. Farmers spent years removing glacier rocks and other debris from the ground. These farmers established small-scale, general farms in which they raised a variety of crops and livestock. Wheat, rye, barley, corn, and other crops along with cattle, hogs, chickens,
and sheep were common across the region. By the end of the colonial period, however, farming had begun to decline in the upper Northeast. Lumber and naval stores as well as financial and manufacturing operations continued to be important in the nineteenth century. Farm size varied from state to state, but most farmers had fewer than two hundred acres. By the nineteenth century, agriculture in the Northeast had ceased to be the only occupation as farm families fell to roughly two-thirds of the population. In the nineteenth century, New England became a center for sheep production. At the same time that the South started to emerge as a center for cotton production, the New England states began exporting large quantities of wool each year to Britain and other manufacturing hubs.
In the mid-Atlantic states, agriculture developed around livestock raising and dairy and grain production. In the colonial period, Chesapeake Bay farmers raised tobacco for the British market, with production concentrated in Virginia rather than Maryland. Quickly dubbed the breadbasket of the colonies, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and later Maryland produced wheat and raised livestock. During this time, farmers began to move from the dual purpose cow and started distinguishing between those that produced large quantities of milk and those that were best for providing beef. The production of butter and cheese allowed farm women to sell their surplus in the Philadelphia and international markets. In proprietary colonies, farmers acquired land subject to quitrents, with an average-size farm at 135 acres. In the nineteenth century, mid-Atlantic farmers continued to improve and clear their lands. Wheat remained an important commercial commodity, although most farmers raised corn for family and local consumption. The raising of livestock in Maryland and other locales became an important industry in places where tobacco was no longer planted.
In the southern states, commercial agriculture drove the economy and society from the start. Colonial settlers planted tobacco, hemp, rice, indigo, and other crops for export. Tobacco farming expanded quickly across Virginia during the colonial period. The development of the Carolinas and Georgia saw the emergence of rice, sugar, hemp, and indigo production. Southern crops, however, depleted the soil, and planters and farmers found it necessary to use field rotation practices. Planters ran large operations, while family farms remained small, with farmers placing only a portion of their land into staple production while the remainder was used to sustain self-sufficiency. Planters gained large land grants from headrights and generous grants from colonial governments. Initially, labor was performed by indentured servants, but by the 1680s slavery had spread across the South. Originally used to farm tobacco, rice, hemp, and indigo and to raise livestock, slaves in the nineteenth century were concentrated on cotton plantations. The development of the cotton gin changed the structure of farms across the South.
When farmers migrated to the new western states, they found a different climate, topography, and soil. As New England and mid-Atlantic farmers moved to the Old Northwest, the land flattened out and the soil became more productive. Crops that could no longer be grown in the East, such as wheat, flourished in what would later be called the Middle West. Settlers found that clearing land required breaking the prairie. While this was time-consuming and costly, once it was broken, farmers did not spend years clearing and rebreaking the soil. In the nineteenth century, the Middle West became a region not just for wheat and other crops, but also for livestock raising and feedlots. European immigrants from northern and central Europe joined settlers from New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Upper South in the Midwest after 1820.
Drache, Hiram M. History of U.S. Agriculture and Its Relevance to Today. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers, 1996.
Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994.
Stephanie A. Carpenter